Resilience

“A butterfly whose wings have been touched, can indeed still fly” J. Raymond.

Today’s post is about the subject of resilience, which has been playing on my mind for a while now. To put it into context, the last 6 months have been without doubt the most difficult I’ve ever experienced (so far).

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An apology….

OK so I’m ashamed to say that it’s been quite a long time since I last posted. It’s not that nothing has been happening—quite the opposite—it’s just that I haven’t felt up to posting much these last few months.

Since January I’ve been having a problem with my hand, specifically my thumb and wrist. It has been put down to a repetitive strain injury or overuse injury to the Extensor Pollicis Longus (EPL) tendon, one of the tendons responsible for extending or lifting your thumb.

It gradually got more and more sore, and has required me to have a medical certificate and only able to perform modified duties at work. Read: no lab work, minimal computer work, nothing repetitive with my right thumb. Yep, the thumb on my dominant hand! Continue reading

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Attack of the Smurfs! (a.k.a naturally coloured soap Part 1)

Time for an update on our soapy adventures…

The original soap making attempt using the Little Green Workshops kit worked a treat – the bars kept their lovely orange blossom scent, and gave a good lather with some poppy seeds bits for a nice bit of scrubby exfoliation as well (although my other half felt they were a bit too scrubby at times). I’ve always been wary of soap as my skin tends to feel quite dry and tight after using soap bars, prompting me to use shower/body washes instead, but I thought this soap was a bit less drying and kinder to my skin. Overall I was pretty pleased with it.

OK I have to admit at this point that in my research about what sort of soaps to try next, I have become slightly obsessed with looking at soap art/porn online and dreaming about all the creative soapy loveliness I could create. Many of the beautiful colourful soaps online are coloured with synthetic colourants, which give a vibrant colour palette with which to create an amazing array of patterns and effects. The colourants are widely used and have been tested for skin safety so it’s not a problem as far as I know to use them, however I wanted to stick to more natural ingredients in my soap as far as possible, so I started doing some research into natural colourants.

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The springing of spring – woohoo!

So I’ve been a bit quiet lately, we’ve been away on holiday to visit family in the UK, and then I just started a new job (back to working full time – eek!) so the last few weeks have flown by, I’m just catching my breath!

In the blink of an eye – or sIMG_2493_2o it seems – spring is finally here and the weather is starting to pick up, it’s looking like it might get up to over 30 degrees this weekend! The trees are blossoming – including our lemon and apricot trees in the garden, and the lovely native wattle trees with their pretty yellow pom-pom flowers are everywhere at the moment, a really cheerful sight to brighten our days! I’ve loved getting out in the garden and grabbing some pictures of some of the lovely native and non-native flowers that are blooming right now – many of them seem to flower for such a short period and die back before it gets really hot, so I’ve been trying to get pics of them while they are around.

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To try to catch up after my busy few weeks we had a busy day in the garden today, getting some way towards adding in a new veggie bed, and planting a whole bunch of seeds including chillies, peppers (capsicum), borlotti beans, sweetcorn, courgette (zucchini) and butternut squash – phew! I hope they all come through, and also that we can get the veggie beds finished in time to make space for them if they do! Looks like the veggie patch is coming to life too, the swiss chard (aka silverbeet) is growing new leaves and the garlic I managed to cram in a few weeks ago is sprouting.

IMG_2502_2Meanwhile, in our absence the ‘woodland’ area at the back of our garden that is filled with lots of native shrubs and eucalypts seems to have sprouted an army of Oxalis. I have to admit they look really pretty under the trees, and have bright yellow flowers that open during the day and close at night – much brighter than the normally bare ground (covered with varying levels of bark chips) that we have under the eucalypts for the rest of the year. I have been advised to spray the whole lot with Roundup, but that is not going to happen in my garden, so I’ve been trying to clear them manually – time will tell how successful that has been but I’m not too bothered, once the weather heats up they die back until next year, and I do quite like them to be honest!

The girls (and boy) have been enjoying some supervised time on that area of the garden, which they LOVE! I’ve read that Oxalis is not great for chickens to eat due to it’s high concentration of oxalic acid, hence the supervision, but they’re enjoying eating the other weeds and grass that are out there – so much so that they are only allowed out for 20 minutes or so immediately before sunset, so I can easily get them back in to go to bed! They love it so much that they crowd around the door to their run every evening, waiting to see if we’ll let them out onto that part of the garden, and seem quite disappointed if they can’t go out there. I think they’re getting a bit spoilt!

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Little Helena enjoying her adventures in the ‘forbidden zone’ at the back of our garden.

 

 

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Jesus can walk on water….

…but Chuck Norris can swim through land.

Or so the saying goes. What does this have to do with anything? Well, we have some new (well relatively) additions to our chicken family, including our new rooster Chook Norris! Here he is meeting the existing matriarch Rosie (little black pekin) for the first time – I think the resemblance is pretty clear don’t you?

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I know I know, a risky move bearing in mind we don’t live on acres of farmland and have some neighbours nearby. We didn’t intend to get a rooster really, it just sort of, well, happened.

A while ago we noticed that when we had two or 3 broody chickens (which is worryingly quite often!) the other remaining chickens seem a bit lost, as if they need a critical mass of chickens in order to be confident roaming around the garden and digging in the bushes. This makes sense if you consider their flock mentality, safety in numbers and the idea that someone is always on the lookout – if suddenly it’s just the two of you then how much can you trust that the other chicken has your back and isn’t just stuffing her face with bits of foliage and small insects?

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Bubble bubble toil and trouble!

When I first watched the movie Fight Club I was intrigued that the characters were able to make soap (and other more…um…explosive substances) so easily with just a few simple ingredients. To me, soap was something to add to the shopping list, not something that I had ever considered making myself. And even after Fight Club, I still didn’t, seeing the searing burn on Edward Norton’s hand was enough to convince me that soap making was something best left to the professionals!

In spite of this, my interest in making soap and other skincare products was awakened recently when considering our plastic usage – I began to research soap making as a way to reduce our plastic use from purchasing shower gel and so on. I was amazed by the variety of beautiful soaps that soap hobbyists have made, and also the simplicity of ingredients needed. And, I have to admit, although chemistry was never my strong point, the sciency-ness of soap making appeals to me too!

As a first foray into soap making, I decided to purchase a kit to get me started. I have been following the blog of Gavin Webber (www.greeningofgavin.com) for a while now – in fact it was his blog that inspired me to finally get off my bum and start writing – and they now run soap making workshops and sell supplies online. I liked the idea of supporting a local small business run by people with the same goals as us so I ordered an Orange Blossom Scrub Soap kit from their online shop (www.littlegreenworkshops.com.au). Sounds lovely!

IMG_2378The kit arrived really quickly within a couple of days, and contained all of the oils needed, some exfoliating poppy seeds, orange blossom fragrance, orange colour and the soap mould, plus step-by-step instructions. Over the weekend David and I decided to bite the bullet and have a go! The only additional things you need are sodium hydroxide (lye, a.k.a. caustic soda) and water – we used distilled water from the local hardware shop. We also bought a craft thermometer, and some heavy duty black gloves – Sodium Hydroxide is a strong alkali and can cause nasty Fight Club-esque burns. Combined with my lovely cow-print apron and some safety glasses I was ready to go! Continue reading

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Viva La Ferment Fever – Part 2

It’s been a while coming—due to hectic ‘end of contract’ madness and trying to finish up at work, combined with family members jumping off moving bikes and fracturing elbows (!)— but I’m slowly getting back on track with our sustainability adventures so here is the second part of our fermentation workshop. The workshop has also featured on the website of Very Edible Gardens here in Melbourne.

In the second part of the VEG fermentation workshop we moved on to looking at yoghurt and kefir, and learnt how to make yoghurt using a thermos flask, some milk and a small amount of live yoghurt as a starter culture to inoculate the milk with the right bacteria.

Carey also showed us some cheese that he had made from the homemade yoghurt, simply from straining the yoghurt through some cheesecloth to drain off the whey and leave the curds behind to form a soft cheese. This is known as Labne, and is common in Lebanese and other middle eastern foods.

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We learnt about how to make kefir, which is similar to yoghurt but contains a much broader mix of bacterial strains – in the same way sourdough bread contains different types and amounts of yeasts and bacteria compared to bread made with commercial yeast that is a specialised strain. Kefir is less stringent that yoghurt on temperature and conditions, it can be made at room temperature whereas yoghurt needs to be a bit warmer at about 40 degrees C.

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We tried some different types of kefir that Carey had prepared beforehand, made from
dairy milk, soy milk, rice milk and coconut milk (from left to right in the photo – hard to tell as once mixed they all looked similar!). They were all quite different to taste, especially as I don’t normally drink dairy milk so to me it tasted quite sour (but not unpleasant). The coconut kefir and rice milk kefirs were pretty good, they had a hint of sweetness along with the sour, fermented flavour, which I thought was a nice mix. The soy kefir was good, but much stronger tasting than I was expecting from drinking soy milk every day! It was more similar to the dairy one than I thought it would be, which was interesting.

Before we could drink the kefir it was necessary to remove the bacteria/yeast culture, which forms squishy cauliflower-like blobs that float around in the milk – sounds pretty gross right? Carey strained the kefir through a mesh to catch the kefir grains, and we all had a look. The kefir grains are an example of a SCOBY – a Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast. From a biological point of view I found the idea that there was a symbiotic balance of bacteria and yeast strains living together in the kefir really fascinating, but couldn’t help wondering how exactly someone discovered how to make kefir in the first place and that it was safe to drink? I often wonder that about a lot of things…

2015-02-28 13.41.23We had a delicious lunch featuring some homemade ferments in the form of carrot and ginger, saurkraut and kimchi, along with sourdough pancakes and some goodies that we’d each taken along to share. I took a Spanish omelette made from our own potatoes and eggs from our girls, it felt great to be able to share some of the things we’ve grown ourselves at home, and to share in the goodies that others had brought, including things they’d grown themselves such as delicious rocket salad. Yum! We washed it down with a lovely sweet lemony drink made from the whey drained from the labne, what a great ‘whey’ to use up the leftovers!

Lunch was officially the end of the class, but Cassie suggested we might like to hang around for some homemade yoghurt ice cream that she was whipping up in the ice cream maker. I suppose we could stay for a little while longer… anything for ice cream!

2015-02-28 14.35.04Whilst the ice cream maker was doing its thing, Carey showed us his Kombucha drink – a fermented tea drink that also contains a SCOBY. The SCOBY here forms a disc on the top of the drink – check it out of the photo below. We tried a little, it was pretty good – slightly fizzy and I found it quite refreshing. I think I’ll be adding that to my list of things to try!

After squeezing in a small bowl of delicious mango and coconut yoghurt icecream we all headed off, armed with our jars of vegetables ready to ferment, our printed booklet of recipes and notes for things to try at home, and full bellies from trying all those different foods!

Overall the class was great, we covered a lot of ground and at times moved quite quickly, but I think the balance was pretty good between covering some things in more detail (like how to actually set up the kimchi/saurkraut ferments and how to make yohurt) whilst still introducing the possibilities of other fermented options too, to give a glimpse of other things we might like to try. The atmosphere was great and Carey and Cassie were really helpful in answering all of our questions and sharing their knowledge. Although these things are easy to find on the internet or in books, sometimes it’s just nicer to actually learn from a real life person and interact face to face!

Check out my next post to find out what happened next in the fermentation adventure….when we try out our new found fermenting skills at home unsupervised!

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What colour green am I?

I recently read Kari McGregor’s ‘Shades of Green’ series of articles, which got me thinking – I’ve always thought of myself as being ‘green’, but what shade am I?

In Part 1 of the series, Kari outlines 4 shades of the green movement:

Bright greenBright Green – Optimistic about the ability of technology such as wind and solar power to save us, that human innovation, ingenuity, and market forces will prevail and dig us out of the hole we seem to be falling ever deeper into. Bright green is quite mainstream and prominent within the environmental movement.

Lite green

Lite Green – This category seems to encompass many people today, and is characterised by ‘eco-consumerism’, the idea that if we all make ethical, green choices then this will push the markets towards more eco-friendly practices.

Deep greenDeep Green – A more radical bunch, deep greens put the environment first and foremost. Their activities are probably what many people think environmentalists do – resistance, blockades, activities designed to undermine the system.

Dark green

Dark Green – Sounds sinister eh? Dark greens have recognised that there is a limit to resources, energy supplies and economic growth, and seek to escape from the system, becoming self sufficient, building resilient communities and preparing in other ways for the shock of global collapse.

So with these seemingly different categories or approaches to a ‘green’ lifestyle, where do I fit in?

As a scientist I do recognise human ingenuity and innovation and believe that there are scientific solutions that can help, although I acknowledge that science does not provide the whole solution in itself. Going cold turkey on easily available energy is not going to be appealing for much of society and this barrier currently prevents us from letting go of fossil fuels. Renewable energy technologies do have the power (literally!) to allow us to wean ourselves off our addiction to fossil fuels, but presently come with their own drawbacks, including pollution and use of natural resources. So am I in the Bright green camp? Well partially….at least for now I believe technology has a role to play, but needs to be in combination with other behavioural and cultural changes to reduce our overall consumption and energy use.

MoviIMG_2316ng on…We buy organic veggies, have solar panels on our house, and are trying to reduce our plastic use – often going out of our way to try to buy ‘eco’ alternatives. I guess that’s a big tick for the Lite green box! Lite green is the easy option and for many people a good place to start, it requires little personal sacrifice and the rewards and ‘feel good’ factor are almost immediate (thinking of the ‘smug’ episode of South Park relating to Prius drivers!). But as Kari points out, green consumption is still consumption and the spectre of peak economic growth requires much more than simply switching brands, but a drastic reduction in consumption overall. We  are not yet self sufficient, so I try to be as green as possible in the purchases I do make as I feel that every little counts, whist always questioning whether we really do need to buy the items we covet.

Recently I have become interested to learn more about the limits to growth and the idea of a de-growth economy. Dark green concepts such as downshifting and voluntary simplicity are appealing ideas for me, although I have yet to implement them to the extent that some people have. I love the idea that we can rebuild stronger and more resilient communities and re-learn things that most people have long forgotten how to do. So whilst I’m not currently very Dark green, I do stand with a foot in this camp, and am moving more in this direction in baby steps.

Ah now, the Deep greens. Currently I don’t think of myself as deep green in my actions although I agree that this approach is needed and I am often moved by the ability of sheer people power to achieve results. Despite my lack of action in this area I do identify with the philosophy. As a biologist I dislike the anthropocentric view that humans are in some way different from (or superior to) other forms of life. Humans are just animals like any other, and we need to re-learn how we fit into the complex web of life that makes up our wonderful home instead of holding the view that we must control or exploit nature. So although outwardly I may not appear to be a Deep Green environmental activist, at heart I am (more than) a little, I just haven’t been brave enough to stick my neck out and show it yet!

So, what shade am I? Probably a mixture of different shades to greater or lesser extent depending on my mood and circumstance, maybe something like this? (Like them? They’re our own Green Tiger tomatoes, fresh from the garden)

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Initially I felt confused and blamed myself for being unfocused, why could I not just focus on one aspect and throw myself into that? But having mulled it over I think it’s OK to identify with more than one shade and to put efforts into different activities working towards the same goal, kind of like not putting all your eggs in one basket I guess.

And does it matter? In the second and third parts of the ‘shades of green’ series, Kari goes on to argue that whilst each of the different shades has it’s good and bad points, there is no ‘wrong’ shade. Each group has a different focus and contribution to make to the environmental movements and the important thing is that people who identify with different ‘camps’ should continue to communicate well with people of other shades and find common ground. Collaboration is one of humanity’s great strengths – we just need to remember that, move away from the ‘us vs. them’ narrative and work together to reach our shared goals and preserve a planet worth living on.

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‘Viva la Ferment Fever!’ Episode 1  

Sometimes you have more cabbages that you know what to do with, yet a month later they’re all gone and there’s a ‘hungry gap’ with no or very little veggies ready to eat. With this in mind, I’ve been looking into ways to preserve veggies to spread out the food we are growing more evenly through the year. Sure we could just freeze things, but I wanted to try something a bit more exciting that just whacking them in the freezer!

Last weekend I went along to the “Viva la Ferment Fever” workshop run by Very Edible Gardens (VEG) here in Melbourne , which promised to cover the ins an outs of making sauerkraut and kimchi (fermented vegetables), yoghurt and kefir (fermented milk or non-dairy milk products). The workshop was jam-packed from start to finish, so I will talk here just about the sauerkraut and kimchi, then will talk a bit about yoghurt and kefir in my next post – information overload!

The workshop was very intimate with just a small group, which was great as we could all gather easily around the kitchen table and get stuck in, everyone had a chance to get some proper experience and learn how to make the veggie ferments. With such a small group it had a very laid back atmosphere and was easy for everyone to ask questions (even for shy people like me!).

We started by learning a bit about how lacto-fermentation works. The idea is to submerge the vegetables in (slightly salted) water, effectively sealing them off to prevent organisms from the air getting into contact with the vegetables. As well as preventing contamination and spoilage from outside organisms, being immersed in water also creates the ideal anaerobic (without oxygen) conditions for the natural organisms that normally lie dormant on the surface of the vegetables to start growing – providing the powerhouse behind the fermentation process.

The word Sauerkraut literally means “sour cabbage”. Sounds delicious doesn’t it? It is actually quite tasty, it has a sour and tangy flavour that goes really well as a side dish with other foods. It is also really simple to make. The main ingredient is cabbage (the clue’s in the name…), we used a red cabbage which looked great with its rich purple colour. In addition to the salt, other seasonings such as chopped dill or caraway seeds can also be added. – we added dill. Kimchi originates from Asian cuisine and often contains other vegetables (we used Chinese/wombok cabbage, daikon radish, leeks and carrots), along with garlic, ginger and red chilli.

IMG_2311We started by chopping the vegetables into fine strips, putting some into a wide bowl and adding a small amount of salt – maybe ¼ teaspoon, just enough to taste. Carey explained that although you can do the fermentation without, adding salt helps to draw water out of the vegetables. By gently pounding the vegetables with the bottom of a glass bottle (carefully!) or by squashing the more tender wombok cabbage gently with our hands, we can help to break up the cell structure of the veg slightly to allow some of the water to come out. The vegetables don’t need to be beaten to a pulp, as you still want them to be a bit crunchy and maintain their shape after fermentation.

We then packed a layer abo2015-02-28 11.26.13ut 5cm thick into the bottom of a large jar, and used the vegetable compression device (aka bottle of balsamic vinegar) to squash the vegetables down and pack them tightly into the bottom of the jar. The rest of the veg was packed in layer by layer, squashing each one down as we went. Interestingly, we could see the water starting to come out of the cabbage as it was packed into the jar, so that by the time it was full there was almost enough liquid to cover the veg when it was weighed down with the bottle.

We each took some samples home so we could see how the fermentation went. I couldn’t find any nice neat little jars that would fit inside the jars to squash down the cabbage, so had to use beer bottles filled with water! I popped a little bit of cling film over the top to prevent the cats from sticking their noses in and also to stop the water in the beer bottles from evaporating or spilling.

To begin with there wasn’t really much water, especially in the red cabbage sauerkraut, and I was worried it might start to spoil. But I followed Carey’s instructions and left it with the beer bottle weighing it down, and the next day there was more water. Within a day or two the cabbage was completely covered!

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Kimchi (left) and Sauerkraut (right) after about 2 days of fermentation

The fermentation would take a week or two, but Carey advised that we should try some every couple of days to see how the flavours changed and see how we liked it. Once it had got to the point at which we felt the flavour was right, we could put it in the fridge to stop or slow down the fermentation.

I tried each of our ferments after a couple of days. The kimchi was pretty good, you could really taste the ginger and chilli. The sauerkraut tasted quite cabbage-y! Surprising, that.

Sauerkraut after about 10 days

Sauerkraut after about 10 days (sorry no pic of Kimchi as it’s almost all been eaten!)

I’ve tried them a couple of times since and the sauerkraut is pretty good now, it tastes a lot less of just cabbage and is a bit more sour and interesting. A great joint effort from all of us at the workshop – I’m interested to see how it goes making it from scratch on my own!

Overall it was definitely a worthwhile use of a Saturday morning, and I will be making more and trying out some of the other recipes for sure. A big thanks to Carey and Cassie at VEG for making it such a great workshop, and watch this space for Episode 2 – Adventures in fermented (non)dairy! 

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Starting our veggie garden

When we moved in, part of the back garden had been separated off and was paved with bricks. I think it was used as a basketball area and also had the washing line in. Whilst this was probably useful if you have family members who like to shoot hoops or like to have a dedicated area to hang your washing, I felt that the view of a bland brick area from the living room window was a bit boring and the large brick area got very hot in the Melbourne sun. I figured we could put that space to much better use, and being fairly level and fenced off from the local rabbit population made it perfect for our new veggie garden.

Our original paved garden area

Our original paved garden area

So one Sunday afternoon I was feeling particularly optimistic in my abilities to get things done on the tail end of the weekend, and decided to take up the bricks. Armed with our trusty crowbar and a masonry chisel thing (apparently it’s called a “cold chisel”) I started trying to prise up the bricks. Thankfully, the bricks were just bedded down on a layer of sand and once I had made a gap it was easy to pull up adjacent bricks. Soon I had cleared an area big enough to install a raised bed 1.8 x 1m and felt very pleased with my achievements.

When choosing a material to make the beds out of, we had a few things to consider. First off, we’re in a high termite area and so the material really had to be termite resistant. Secondly, our location on the urban fringe of Melbourne and backing onto grassland with powerlines means that we’re also in a higher fire risk area, and although our risk isn’t as high as those properties fully buried in the bush, we wanted to minimise the amount of flammable timber near the house. And finally, we wanted to use a material that was as eco-friendly as possible.

After some research we settled on eWood planks (www.ewood.com.au), which ticked a lot of our boxes. They are made in Australia, from recycled plastics including printer cartridges, computers, TVs and car parts. They are termite resistant, need no painting or sealing and are UV stabilised to withstand the harsh Australian climate. Best of all, they were available from our local Mitre10 who delivered them really quickly, almost before we had got home from the shop!

We ordered enough planks to make a few beds, and cut them to size – be warned, like many “composite” or plastic woods, they are hard to cut and will blunt tools!

We ordered some soil from a local supplier to top up the beds, and chose a blend of soils designed for veggie beds. Ideally I would prefer to work with the soil we have and aim to improve it through digging in compost etc. but the soil is so heavy and hard to deal with that we wouldn’t have been able to grow much in it so we decided to short-cut a bit by mixing in some better soil with more organic matter to get things started, then we will continue to improve it over the coming seasons through composting and mulching.

Hard at work digging our heavy clay soil!

Hard at work digging our heavy clay soil!

As soon as the first beds were finished, I started planting, putting in some potatoes (pink fir apple, pink eye and purple congo) broad beans and sweetcorn plants. We have since added in more beds, and have planted shallots, tomatoes, chillies, swiss chard (silverbeet) and courgettes (sorry… zucchini!). 

Obviously the jungle crew had to venture into the new veggie area to check it out – they wasted no time in jumping in amongst the silverbeet and munching away!

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Overall I’m pleased with what we’ve achieved in our first year of having a proper veggie garden in Australia. We haven’t managed to grow as much as we would have liked to, the broad beans and snow peas didn’t take off and in fact the broad beans succumbed to a leaf curl virus and had to be discarded. The sweetcorn has produced 2 tiny cobs but each plant has stopped at about 40-50cm tall so I don’t they’ve not done as well I had hoped. But the courgettes, potatoes and swiss chard/silverbeet have been great. The chillies haven’t cropped all that heavily, the had some hurdles to overcome in the fact that the chickens stripped all the leaves they could reach off each plant! Still, they have recovered reasonably well and continued to flower, so we’re still getting some chillies, which is good.

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I’m still learning about the need to water – I think I‘m watering enough but seem to constantly underestimate the heat from the sun here and I think this has affected some of our yields. Luckily the previous owners installed an irrigation system connected to the rainwater tanks, so we’ve modified this to re-route the pipes around the veggie beds, now each bed is irrigated with a dripper hose that seeps water into the soil. After we installed our beds I read about wicking beds and how much water they can save – typical that I found it after we had already planted ours! We still have a couple more beds to put in, so I might try to make some wicking beds for those, we’ll see how that goes.

All in all, I’m pretty pleased– now I’m planning my autumn plantings to try to get some things growing over winter. It’s been great watching things grow over summer, and has been very satisfying to cook and share meals that we’ve made from our own produce – and eggs of course!

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